Product Group Tests

Biometrics (2010)

Group Summary

Our Best Buy this month is ACTAtek, an easy-to-use physical access and time-keeping biometric product.

Its split architecture design wins Intelli-Pass Biometric Access Control our Recommended award.

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Face, vein or palm: human authentication has many challenges. Peter Stephenson puts a finger on it.

When we looked at biometric authentication devices in the lab this month we found that the mix of logical and physical access control products had shifted significantly from previous years. We also found that some of the vendors this month viewed their products as too difficult to implement without one of their engineers onsite. We do not agree with that, as one major improvement we are seeing generally is ease of use.

The first year that we looked at biometrics we had some fascinating devices, including facial recognition, fingerprint scanners and hand and palm geometry devices.

Another year, we had one of the first vascular devices available, which looked at the veins just under the skin. There have also been retinal scanners. Overall, I think we have seen just about everything down the years.

Last year, something started to crystallise. Almost all we saw was fingerprint scanners, ranging from very bad to very good biometric devices. Good (and sometimes expensive) biometric software when paired with a competent scanner can make a very solid fingerprint scanner. However, there has been an ongoing debate about which kind of biometrics is the best. For a while it looked as if fingerprints were going to carry the day, but the jury is still out.

However, facial recognition - with research driven by the convenience of being able to scan without the subject realising it coupled with the need to identify terrorist suspects at airports - started to gain ground.

Fingerprint scanners were starting to boast 99.9 per cent accuracy, while facial recognition was pegged at just under 90 per cent. Also, two-dimensional facial recognition was plagued by lighting challenges that affected accuracy significantly.

Facial recognition research goes on apace, testing the use of multiple cameras, different lighting requirements, two- and three-dimensional rendering, and so on. Meanwhile, fingerprint scanners are starting to become both very affordable as well as accurate. Functioning quietly in the background are the palm geometry devices that are used mostly for physical access. Additionally, some developers of biometric software are starting to look at mixing different types of devices, so you might have facial recognition paired with fingerprint scanning.

Devices are downsizing. Fingerprint scanners embedded in PCs are becoming common and cameras for facial recognition hide discreetly at airports around the world and in the ceilings of casinos. Some facial recognition systems boast the ability to scan over 100,000 faces per second and make comparisons with a stored database of facial images.

So, exactly what should you look for when you buy biometrics? First, do not let budget constrain your decision to use biometrics. If you select the right application and the appropriate type of device, you can put together a very respectable authentication tool at a very reasonable price. The key is in a three-step process.

First, why do you want to use biometrics in the first place? Is what you are protecting worth the cost and the trouble? In your specific environment, can you mix physical and logical access control? In other words, can the biometric device that opens the data centre door authenticate to the user's computer too?

Second, once you have decided that biometrics is the answer, what are you going to do with it and what is the appropriate technology? Fingerprint scanning software may be the answer for most logical access applications in your company.

If you need to open doors, though, you might want something a little more robust. Consider that there is a lot more behind that data centre door than there is on your laptop.

Finally, once you have decided that you need biometrics and you have picked out the appropriate technology, decide on your budget. You can control budget by deciding what your mix of risk, technology and convenience needs to be. That will, perhaps, narrow the application field. Not all users need biometrics, and there are other ways to get strong authentication. Save the biometrics for the heavy applications. It is not just the cost of the devices; it is the total lifecycle cost with which you must contend.

This month, our testing was about as straightforward as it gets. We applied the products coming into the lab exactly in the same way that I have described in the selection process and then we put the products through their paces.

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